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Another Ukrainian flight lands at Mattala pending approval for new set of guidelines ahead of BIA opening

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Udayanga denies accusations

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The fifth flight carrying Ukrainian tourists landed in the country’s second international airport at Mattala yesterday (7) as the SLPP government vowed to go ahead with what Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranatunga called a pilot project of pivotal importance in the run-up to re-opening of the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA).

Minister Ranatunga told a gathering at Minuwangoda that in spite of some hiccups the pilot project was on track. The minister acknowledged the recent problems caused by the failure on their part to adhere to specific health guidelines in place to neutralize the Covid-19 threat. The SLPP Gampaha District heavyweight said that approximately 600 Ukrainians were here since the arrival of the first flight on Dec 28.

The fifth flight had brought 183 passengers though the original schedule envisaged 215 persons, an aide to Minister Ranatunga told The Island.

The entire group and the airline crew were subjected to PCR tests.

Responding to another query, the official said that with the latest arrivals, the total number of visitors was approximately 800.

According to a copy of the schedule made available to The Island, there would be altogether ten flights from Ukraine before the government re-opened the BIA on January 21.

There would be two more flights on January 22 and 24 from Ukraine to Mattala after the re-opening of the BIA, the official said. Acknowledging that their original plan was to bring in 2,580 passengers in 12 ‘Sky Up’ and ‘Ukrainian International Airline’ flights from Dec 28, 2020 to January 24, 2021 to test Sri Lanka’s preparedness to re-open BIA.

The official said that some of those who had been planning to visit Sri Lanka pulled out at the last moment though the vast majority responded positively. All flights originated from Ukraine’s capital Kiev.

The remaining flights are scheduled to touch down at Mattala on January 8, 12, 14, 15, 19, 22 and 24. All remaining flights will also originate from Kiev.

The official said that authorities expect over 2,000 to visit Sri Lanka though the original plan was to facilitate the arrival of 2,580.

Referring to the recent incident at Yala where Ukrainian project prompter Sri Lanka’s former Ambassador in Moscow Udayanga Weeratunga had been accused of violating agreed health protocols, Minister Ranatunga said that once they realized the shortcomings immediate remedial measures were taken.

Minister Ranatunga claimed that due to the delay in the Tourism Ministry receiving relevant health guidelines, they weren’t available down the line, hence the breakdown in communications. However, acknowledging their shortcomings, Minister Ranatunga also faulted those responsible for organizing the Ukrainian project for not properly informing them.

According to Minister Ranatunga, three companies had been involved in the pilot project to allow visitors from what he called the Russian region.

The Tourism Ministry promptly responded to Sri Lanka Tourism Chairperson Kimarli Fernando’s scathing attack on protocol violations. In a letter dated January 2, 2021, Fernando warned of dire consequences if tour operators were allowed to flout protocols.

Explaining the measures adopted by Ukrainians before the groups departed, Minister Ranatunga emphasized the need to have a different set of protocols/guidelines in respect of tourists. Those who visit the country for a week or two couldn’t be expected to follow the procedures in place for those Sri Lankans returning home, Minister Ranatunga said, revealing that the Tourism Ministry had sought approval from health authorities for a new set of protocols ahead of the opening of the BIA.

The minister said that they expected the approval ahead of the BIA re-opening.

Minister Ranatunga said that health guidelines meant for tourists would prevent transmission of coronavirus from tourists to locals and vice versa.

Explaining how the places for Ukranians to visit were chosen, Minister Ranatunga assured they wouldn’t be taken to Dalada Maligawa if the Buddhist clergy opposed it.

According to the Minister, of the 600 who had been here before Thursday’s arrivals, only two were tested positive for corona. However, earlier media reported that six Ukrainians had been tested positive.

Meanwhile, State Minister Dr. Nalaka Godahewa, appearing in ‘Aluth Parlimenthuwa’ on Wednesday (6) strongly defended the government decision to launch pilot project ahead of the re-opening of the BIA. Acknowledging the risks involved, Dr. Godahewa explained that the government couldn’t delay taking meaningful measures to kick start tourism until Covid-19 epidemic was brought under total control. Responding to former JVP lawmaker Dr. Nalinda Jayatissa, State Minister Godahewa emphasized the need to go ahead with tourism revival plans regardless of criticism.

Pointing out how the government swiftly responded to criticism pertaining to the Ukranian project, Dr. Godahewa said that in spite of immense challenges, the government efforts to improve the situation were on track. The tourism project was a key part of the overall project, the Viyathmaga heavyweight said, dismissing Opposition accusations of incompetence and unilateral measures at the times of unprecedented crises.

Former Ambassador Weeratunga appeared on television on Wednesday to defend the ongoing project. Weeratunga said that though there had been some issues with the project there was no basis for accusations that protocols were violated. Weeratunga emphasized the need to provide an opportunity for tourists to visit the country.



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Six nabbed with over 100 kg of ‘Ice’

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By Norman Palihawadane and Ifham Nizam

The Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB) yesterday arrested six suspects in the Sapugaskanda Rathgahawatta area with more than 100 kilos of Crystal Methamphetamine also known as Ice.

Police Media Spokesman, Deputy Inspector General of Police, Ajith Rohana told the media that the PNB sleuths, acting on information elicited from a suspect in custody had found 91 packets of Ice.

A man in possession of 100 kilos of heroin was arrested in Modera during the weekend and revealed that a haul of Ice had been packed in plastic boxes.

The PNB seized more than 114 kilos of Ice from the possession of a single drug network.

According to the information elicited from the suspects, more than 100 kilos of Ice were found.

The PNB also arrested six persons including two women with 13 kilos of Ice, during an operation carried out in the Niwandama area in Ja-Ela on Sunday.

DIG Rohana said the ice had been packed in small plastic boxes and hidden in two school bags.

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PM intervenes to iron out differences among coalition partners

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By Norman Palihawadane

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa yesterday said that he was confident that differences among the constituents of the SLPP coalition as regards the May Day celebrations and the next Provincial Council elections could be ironed out soon.

Leaders of all SLPP allied parties have been invited to a special meeting to be held at Temple Trees with the PM presiding on April 19.

Prime Minister Rajapaksa said it was natural for members of a political alliance to have their own standpoints and views on matters of national importance. “This is due to the different political ideologies and identities. It is not something new when it comes to political alliances world over. In a way, it shows that there is internal democracy within our alliance.

The PM said: “As a result of that the allied parties may express their own views on issues, but that does not mean there is a threat to the unity of the alliance. An alliance is more vibrant and stronger not when all the parties think on the same lines but when the member parties have different ideologies.”

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Thilo Hoffman remembered

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A copy of the book “Politics of a Rainforest: Battles to save Sinharaja” was handed over to Dominik Furgler, the Swiss Ambassador in Sri Lanka by the author of the book, Dr. Prasanna Cooray at the Swiss Embassy in Colombo last Tuesday, to be sent to the family of the late Thilo Hoffman in Switzerland.

Hoffman, a Swiss national, who made Sri Lanka his second home for six decades, was a pioneering environmental activist who led the battles to save Sinharaja from the front in the early 1970s, abreast with the likes of Iranganie Serasinghe, Kamanie Vitharana, Lynn De Alwis and Nihal Fernando of the “Ruk Rekaganno” fame. That was the era when the trees of Sinharaja were felled for the production of plywood by the then government. Hoffman was also a livewire of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) for a long time. Hoffman died in 2014 at the age of 92.

The book includes a chapter on Thilo Hoffman.

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